No holiday gathering is complete without a little something sweet to round out the meal.
Whether you opt for apple, pumpkin, or pecan, any pastry chef will tell you the key to a memorable pie starts at the base — a flaky, flavorful crust. But crust can be intimidating, even for experienced home cooks. We asked Philadelphia pie experts to weigh in with their best crust-making tips.
Holly Riccardi, owner of Magpie Artisan Pies, 1622 South St.
Tova du Plessis, owner of Essen Bakery, 1437 E. Passyunk Ave.
Elizabeth Halen, owner of Flying Monkey Bakery, 1146 Arch St.
Jarrett O'Hara, head chef at the Rooster, 1526 Sansom St.
Raina Beresniewicz, head pastry chef at Cake Life, 1306 Frankford Ave.
Practice makes perfect
Before the big holiday, consider churning out a few practice pies to see what works for you. "It's really the best advice I could give — the more you do it, the better you're going to get at it," O'Hara said. "And don't be too hard on yourself. You're probably going mess up a couple of crusts, but that's just part of the process. Plus, it's pie — even if it doesn't come out flawless, it'll likely still taste good."
Don't psych yourself out at the start: pie crust is just three simple ingredients. "People have a lot of pie crust anxiety, but it's really just three components — the flour, the fat, and the liquid," Halen said. "What really matters is how you put it all together."
Go all in on all-purpose flour. "It's all about the protein percentage of a flour. So bread flour has a higher percentage of protein, around 13 percent, while pastry and cake flour have a lower percentage, around 9 or 10 percent," Riccardi said. "Using all-purpose flour is really important because it's the best of both worlds — it has about 11 percent protein, the right amount to give you the tenderness but also the strength that a good pie crust needs."
Magpie uses Gold Medal All-Purpose flour.
Butter is a must. Using Crisco is your call. "I'm all for butter, and I only want butter," Plessis said. "I will not put shortening in anything, 100 percent for flavor reasons. Butter has milk solids, which help to brown the crust in the oven and give you that rich, caramelized flavor. Nothing else can replace that, and if you treat your ingredients properly in regard to temperature and method, you should still end up with a flaky texture."
Others, like Riccardi, agree that butter can yield flaky results, but believe that just a little Crisco can do magic.
"Crisco, like lard, has a bigger fat crystal than butter, and so it has a higher melting point temperature," Riccardi said. "When you use both, you create these pockets of butter and pockets of Crisco between the gluten that, when put in the oven, create the flakiness. Crisco will hold out a little longer before melting, creating a pocket in the dough. We use four tablespoons of Crisco for every 12 tablespoons of butter."
"Nothing beats butter for flavor, but we do 80 percent butter and 20 percent Crisco to create that perfect pie look," O'Hara said. "Crisco's higher melting point helps the crust keep its shape in the oven, so you end up with a super-beautiful crimped crust vs. a pie where the edges fall flat."
Add flavor by swapping buttermilk for water. "Pie dough is essentially flour, salt, butter, and liquid — and a lot of people just do water for the liquid. Water will do the job, but why waste an opportunity to add flavor?" Plessis said. "We use whey, the by-product of making cheese — we ask a cheesemaker from Merion Park Cheese if we can have his whey. It adds an additional layer of flavor, a cheesy richness, and a touch of acid. Buttermilk is a great substitution if you can't find whey."
Or season your dough with a little bit of sugar and salt. "Per two balls of dough, or a top and bottom crust, we put two tablespoons of sugar and one teaspoon of salt in our pie crust," Riccardi said. "The sugar helps with browning the bottom crust, and the salt adds a balancing flavor."
Vinegar can add seasoning, too, and make the crust easier to shape. "We swap about 10 percent of the water we're using with apple cider vinegar," Beresniewicz said. "It has a nice fruitiness that it imparts on the dough, but it also helps to inhibit the gluten from overdeveloping. In the end, you have a dough that's easier to work with and doesn't fall apart, which is particularly helpful if you're doing a lattice crust."
Temperature is crucial. Chill your ingredients — especially the butter — before mixing. "If the butter is warm, the fat starts to blend too closely with the flour, and that's how you lose your flakiness," Plessis said. "Chilling the butter and liquid in the refrigerator is a must, but you could even throw your mixing bowl in there, too."
But first, measure everything out. "The less time you give your butter to warm up, the better, so pre-measure it before placing it in the fridge," O'Hara said. "You also want to have everything else ready to go so that the minute you take the butter out, you can get to work immediately."
Own a food processor? Try freezing the butter. "We believe we get the best flaky crust when we use a food processor because then we can use frozen butter," Riccardi said. "We cube up the butter before freezing it. After, we'll place it in the processor with a regular blade along with the dry ingredients, and pulse it until it turns into crumbles. It sounds really violent, like there's plastic in there, but I'm telling you, it's the best way to do it."
Prevent overworking the dough by limiting hands-on time. "When I'm teaching pie classes, I inevitably end up repeating 'stop touching it' throughout the entire class," Riccardi laughed. "Dough feels nice and soft, but you don't want to warm it up or overdevelop the gluten through working it. At the end, it should be a little crumbly. In fact, you don't want it to appear shiny and smooth."
"You want to mix the flour and butter just until you see the butter resembling pea-size chunks," Plessis said. "At this point, you'll add the water."
Be stingy with the liquid — adding too much water is one of the most common mistakes. "You want to add slowly — the dough needs to hold together enough for you to roll it out, but too much water will activate the gluten," O'Hara said. "That will turn it more into a biscuit dough, causing it to be mealy, not flaky."
Use the power of your refrigerator again, before rolling your dough. "I like to let it rest overnight in the fridge, wrapped in Saran wrap," Riccardi said. "The butter will get nice and hard again, which will make it less messy to roll and also helps maintain the coldness you need to create flakiness."
Or your freezer. "We shape our dough into a flat disc and then freeze it for at least a couple of hours to make sure the fat gets really cold again," Halen said. "When we're ready to roll, we'll let it sit on the counter for an hour, and then whack it with the rolling pin a few times to flatten it out further. It's really loud, but it's a great way to get out some aggression if you're not in a good mood."
When rolling, picture your movements shooting out from the center of the dough like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. "You don't want to simply roll back and forth, or you'll end up with a rectangle," Riccardi said. "Work your way out from the center, stopping to rotate the dough as you go."
Use as little flour as possible to dust your counter space. "Adding too much flour will make your crust tough," Halen said. "I actually use a tool called a flour wand — one squeeze from the wand onto the counter does the trick."
"Remember to keep moving your dough as you roll," Riccardi said. "This will help it from getting stuck. If it does start to feel impossible to move without tearing, that's the only time you want to lay additional flour down."
Consider your rolling pin choice wisely. "Most people reach for a ball-bearing pin, but my preference is a tapered French rolling pin. It gives me more control," Plessis said. "With ball-bearing pins, you're holding on to these handles, not the rolling pin itself, so it's harder to direct and apply even pressure."
Don't own a rolling pin? Piecrust is still possible. "If you don't have a rolling pin, you can wrap a wine bottle in plastic wrap. I've definitely done that in a pinch," Halen said.
Before baking, consider an egg wash. "Before we spoon in the filling, we whisk an egg with a little bit of water and then brush it onto just the crimped edge part of the crust. Then we sprinkle a little bit of turbinado sugar on top," O'Hara said. "The egg wash helps the edges to brown really nicely, and the sugar adds a nice crunchy texture as well as some additional sweetness. Like with pizza, you want the crust to be delicious all on its own."
Start your oven at a higher temperature than is called for in your recipe. "We'll start around 400, and then drop it immediately to 325 once the pie is in the oven," Beresniewicz said. "You want to shock the cold crust with that heat so that the butter quickly melts rather than having it slowly melt into the dough. This process creates the air pockets that develop flakiness."
Get a head start by making the filling in advance. "A lot of people don't realize how much time it takes to make a crust with all of the different chilling steps, so you end up rushing to put the pie together and that's when mistakes happen. Try making the filling a day ahead," Beresniewicz said. "If you're doing an apple pie, you'll want to drain the juice that releases overnight so you don't end up with a soggy crust. But you can use that juice to create a sauce — we add sugar and cook it down into a caramel, and then deglaze it with a little butter, heavy cream, and salt."
Don't eat the pie the same day you make it. "No one likes to hear it, but like a steak, a pie needs to rest," Riccardi said. "The filling boils and then it needs time to cool down. Especially with a fruit pie, where thickeners are typically involved, you want to give time for the juices to set and the thickener to do its job. Give the pie a night's rest, and you won't end up with a pool of wasted juice on your plate once you cut into it."
Magpie’s Flaky Pie Dough
Yields 2 (9-inch) crusts
2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
12 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces and frozen
4 tbsp. vegetable shortening (Crisco)
½ cup ice water
In a food processor, add the flour, sugar, and salt, and pulse for three seconds.
Scatter frozen butter cubes on top of the flour mixture. Pulse six times at one-second intervals, or until butter turns into pea-size pieces. Scatter the shortening over the flour mixture, and pulse again, four times at one-second intervals.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and pour the ice water on top. Using a bowl scrapper, mix the water into the flour until medium-size curds form. Then use the palm of your hand to flatten and fold the dough over itself until it just comes together and forms one large mass; don't overwork it.
Divide the dough into two equal discs. Wrap tightly with plastic and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to use, remove dough and place on a lightly floured surface. Using a rolling pin, apply even pressure and gently roll each disk from the center out, rotating the circle as you go to prevent sticking.
— Holly Ricciardi, owner of Magpie Artisan Pies
Kabocha Squash Pie Filling
Yields enough filling for 1 (standard 9-inch) pie
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground clove
14 oz. roasted kabocha squash flesh
8 oz. heavy cream
1 parbaked crust
Preheat oven to 350 (or 325 for a convection oven).
Place all of the ingredients in a large bowl, and use an immersion blender to bend them. (You can also use a blender.) Strain through a sieve.
Into a parbaked crust, pour as much batter as will fit into the pie pan without overflowing. Bake for approximately 45 minutes, or until the filling no longer sloshes around in the pan.
Remove from oven, and allow pie to rest at least two hours before serving. Pie may be baked up to two days in advance and stored in an airtight container.
— Tova du Plessis, owner of Essen Bakery